The Hunt for Alien Signals Continues With New Strategies

The search for extraterrestrial life, also known as SETI, is now involving a wide range of tools, starting from advanced laser searches, to a new kind of wide-angle optical observatory, to networks that are set to carry out the search at once with other scientific tools.

“We’re bringing a Silicon Valley approach to the search for advanced life,” said Andrew Siemion, the director of the Berkeley SETI Research Center and principal investigator for the Breakthrough Listen program. “Usually, I add that we’re trying to bring the good parts of Silicon Valley to the search, not necessarily some of the bad parts.”

Siemion mentioned the good parts, such as the public launch of the second big set of radio data from Breakthrough Listen. That action debuted about five years ago, with the renowned Israeli-Russian billionaire Yuri Milner and British physicist Stephen Hawking.

Since then, the campaign has collaborated with radio telescope networks all over the world, including the National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA).

“We’re developing a system that will allow us to tap all of the data that the VLA produces and use it 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to search for anomalies alongside other science,” Siemion said.

Numerous Strategies are Applied

Massive radio dishes are not the only tools being used in the quest for alien signals. Renowned SETI astronomer Jill Tarter solicited the development of a new kind of wide-angle optical observatory, called Panoramic SETI or PANOSETI, which could note short flashes of light. Such flashes may be linked with the peculiarities known as fast radio bursts, or FRBs, and there is a possibility they might act on a pattern that suggests international transmission from alien civilizations.

Another ongoing program at the SETI Institute, known as LaserSETI, approaches the hunt for optical signatures a bit different. LaserSETI’s compact camera enclosures are created to observe the whole sky for short laser light from a total of 15 locations in the world.

“Since last August, the first two enclosures have been operating on the rooftop of the Robert Ferguson Observatory in Sonoma, California,” Tarter said. “The next two enclosures are going to be placed in Hawaii, at the Haleakala Observatory. And ultimately, we’ll have something like this globally to look at all the sky, all the time, for transients.”

Optical SETI could help broaden the search for alien signals to a brand new area of the electromagnetic spectrum, but there is an obstacle that currently blocks the way.

“Neither PANOSETI nor LaserSETI are fully funded, so we can’t say when they might be complete,” Tarter explained. “If you have an opportunity to provide some funding, both of those projects would benefit from it.”

Unlimited Funding If Signals are Found

NASA‘s James Webb Space Telescope could detect the first chemical signatures of alien life processes in this decade, more probably by identifying gases such as water vapor, methane, and carbon dioxide in extraterrestrial atmospheres.

“JWST will really give us a tantalizing glimpse that would be potentially habitable. … We’ll get this tantalizing glimpse, but we won’t get anything really definitive,” University of Washington astronomer Victoria Meadows, who heads UW’s Virtual Planetary Laboratory, said. “To do that, we are going to need far more capable missions, and happily, NASA is currently considering them.”

A few other mission notions with effects on astrobiology, such as HabEx, LUVOIR, Lynx, and Origin, are scheduled to be analyzed throughout decadal research of astronomical priorities.

“I’ve been promised unlimited funding if we detect a signal,” Breakthrough Listen’s Siemion said.

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